Social anxiety is something nearly 15 million people suffer from worldwide, yet it is still a mental illness that many misunderstand. Social anxiety can be described as a fear of human interaction and not surprisingly, is the third largest mental health issue in the United States. Alongside feelings of nervousness, panic and anxiety in social situations, physiological symptoms can include sweating, racing heart, blushing, trembling or even muscle twitches.
However, a new study by Canadian researchers Jennifer Trew and Lynn Alden that was published in Springer’s Journal Motivation and Emotion (2015) has found that carrying out acts of kindness can reduce social anxiety.
Acts of kindness were the focus for this experiment because they are a proven technique in increasing happiness and the study aimed to examine whether carrying out these acts decreased social avoidance goals and whether an increased positive effect was present. Using undergraduates who scored a 25 or higher on the Social Interaction Anxiety Scale-Straightforward (SIAS-S), a participant pool of 146 students took part. The researchers placed these participants into one of three groups for a four-week duration. One group performed random acts of kindness, such as doing their roommates dishes, one group was exposed to social situations without carrying out acts of kindness and the third, a neutral control group.
Those who performed the acts of kindness felt significantly more comfortable in social situations and therefore less likely to avoid them, compared to those who did not, this effect being most noticeable in the initial phase of the intervention. The study showed that acts of kindness are valuable as an avoidance reduction strategy, whilst also reducing anticipation of possible rejection and temporary levels of general anxiety. Trew and Alden concluded that over time, socially anxious people may improve their mental health by carrying out acts of kindness on a regular basis.
Trew explains “Acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of a person’s social environment, it helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and, in turn, makes them less likely to want to avoid social situations.”
This study paves the way for new studies into interventions for socially anxious people, opening doors for new research opportunities as well as potentially helping millions of people worldwide. So, if you feel socially anxious, or even if you don’t, get out there and complete an act of kindness for somebody else; you might just make a change.